What determines political party clout?

Post developed by Olivia Avery and Katie Brown in coordination with Ted Brader.

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Political parties work as a way to maximize voting power and consolidate control in the government. This power and influence over a democracy depends on the support of the citizens that vote them into office. Effective political parties want to be able to guide the opinions of their followers. But what kind of parties are the most effective at this persuasion?

A recent study by Center for Political Studies (CPS) researcher and professor of political science Ted Brader – along with Joshua A. Tucker and Dominik Duell of New York University – seeks to answer this question.

The authors hypothesize that three things contribute to party power. The first is longevity, or how long the party has existed.   The second is incumbency, or whether the party is currently in power. And the third is ideological clarity, or the consistency of the party’s platform. Brader and colleagues tested the impact of these three factors in three multiparty democracies: Great Britain, Hungary, and Poland.

What did they find? People are more likely to respond to policy cues from (1) older parties, (2) non-incumbents, or opposition parties, and (3) parties with consistent ideology. The effect of the age of the party vanishes when the other two factors are considered.

These results may run counter to long-held beliefs that incumbency and older parties dominate. As the authors conclude, “What matters most is the recent experience with, and current image of, the party, not the reputation or experience that has been built up over the long term.”

Whereas this study examined three countries with multiparty systems, contests in the contemporary United States tend to be limited to two major parties: Democrats and Republicans. While third parties face overwhelming obstacles to gaining power in such a two party system, sometimes they do manage to win select local elections, shift the strategy of major party candidates, or capture attention in an effort to influence the terms of debate. Brader and colleagues’ results suggest that third parties (such as the Green Party or the Reform Party) and perhaps intraparty movements like the Tea Party can have an impact on public opinion even as outsiders, if they maintain a consistent, clear ideological voice.

For more information, please see the article “Which Parties Can Lead Opinion? Experimental Evidence on Partisan Cue Taking in Multiparty Democracies”  published in the journal Comparative Political Studies.

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